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Political Teachings

by Gary C. Bryner

Concerning the general duties of government and citizen, latter-day scriptures and the prophets of THE CHURCH of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints teach that governments should protect freedoms and provide for the public interest and that citizens should honor and uphold laws and governments. LDS theology endorses aspects of both individualism and communitarianism, and harmonizes these conflicting ideas by teaching that community members can share and promote ideals and principles but should never use force to achieve such conditions. Church leaders encourage members to be participants in public affairs even as they emphasize the separation of the management of church and state. The Church rarely gives official counsel to its members regarding political issues. As with other religions, various opinions exist among Latter-day Saints as to how political teachings and principles should be applied.

Section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants is a useful starting point for examining the major beliefs of members of the LDS Church concerning politics and government. In an 1835 meeting to discuss plans for publishing the Doctrine and Covenants, Church leaders prepared a declaration to the world concerning "earthly governments and law." Some members of the Church had been accused of being opposed to law and order, and were subsequently victimized by mobbings and violence. The declaration provided guidelines for the Saints in rebutting the charges of their enemies. Penned by Oliver Cowdery, with the possible participation of W. W. Phelps, this is one of the few sections of the Doctrine and Covenants not given by revelation to Joseph Smith.

Two central themes run throughout this section and related passages. First, the duty of government is to provide for the public interest in general and to protect freedom of conscience and religious belief in particular. Governments "were instituted of God for the benefit of man." Laws are to be enacted "for the good and safety of society" and to "secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life." Government officials are to make laws that are "best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience" (D&C 134:1-2, 5). The separation of church and state is imperative: it is not "just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges" (D&C 134:9). Governments do not have the right "to interfere in prescribing rules of worship, to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion." They "should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul." Governments have an affirmative duty to protect citizens "in the free exercise of their religious belief," but they do not have the right to "deprive citizens of this privilege, or proscribe them in their opinions," as long as such citizens do not promote sedition (D&C 134:4-7).

Second, the duty of citizens is to honor and sustain laws and governments. All people are "bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights." Governments are responsible "for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the guilty"; citizens are to "step forward and use their ability in bringing offenders against good laws to punishment" (D&C 134:5-6, 8).

Other passages in LDS scripture reflect these themes of governmental and citizenship duties. Members of the Church are to befriend the "constitutional law of the land" that supports the "principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges" (D&C 98:5-6). Church leaders have regularly indicated their belief that the Constitution of the United States of America is an inspired document. Citizens are to seek and uphold honest, wise, and good government leaders (D&C 98:10). Book of Mormon writers emphasize that every person is to enjoy "rights and privileges alike" and that political decisions are to be made "by the voice of the people" (Mosiah 29:25-27, 32).

New Testament admonitions to "render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's" (Matt. 22:21), to "be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates" (Titus 3:1), and to "submit yourselves to every ordinance of man" (1 Pet. 2:13) also provide guidance to members of the Church concerning their obligations as citizens. In all nations, Latter-day Saints are encouraged to support their lawful governments; to participate actively in politics, civic affairs, and public service; and to support and promote just and righteous causes.

Because of its emphasis on free agency, individual accountability, and freedom of belief and conscience, LDS theology is quite compatible with Western traditions of liberal democracy that champion individual and minority rights, personal freedom, and religious pluralism. Laws are to ensure "the rights and protection of all" so that every person "May act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which [God has] given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment" (D&C 101:77-78).

From a broader view of politics, however, Latter-day Saints have much greater expectations for collective action. Their theology includes a strong commitment to achieve a unified, cooperative society, characterized by spiritual convictions, strong social bonds, collective responsibilities, and material equality. Joseph Smith taught that "the greatest temporal and spiritual blessings which always come from faithfulness and concerted effort, never attended individual exertion or enterprise" (TPJS, p. 183). Unity and cooperation in temporal affairs are preconditions for spiritual progress: "If ye are not one ye are not mine" (D&C 38:27); "If ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things" (D&C 78:6; see also Zion).

Respect for individual rights and a strong commitment to collective action come together in the belief that communities can be built on shared principles and ideals, but force can never be employed to achieve those ends. Unity and cooperation cannot be attained by coercion, but only through love: power is to be exercised by "persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned" (D&C 121:41). The goals of individual righteousness and community are well captured in this description of the city of Enoch from the Pearl of Great Price: "And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them" (Moses 7:18).

While Latter-day Saints aspire to such a community of the faithful, they have been encouraged throughout their history to participate in public affairs even under other conditions. "It is our duty," said Joseph Smith, "to concentrate all our influence to make popular that which is sound and good, and unpopular that which is unsound. 'Tis right, politically, for a man who has influence to use it" (HC 5:286). Brigham Young charged members of the Church, "Let every man and woman be industrious, prudent, and economical in their acts and feelings, and while gathering to themselves, let each one strive to identify his or her interests with the interests of this community, with those of their neighbor and neighborhood, let them seek their happiness and Welfare in that of all" (JD 3:330).

In 1903 the First Presidency of the Church issued a statement emphasizing the separation of religious and political activity:

The Church…instructs in things temporal as well as things spiritual…. But it does not infringe upon…the domain of the state…. Every member of the organization in every place is absolutely free as a citizen…. In proclaiming "the kingdom of heaven's at hand," we have the most intense and fervent conviction of our mission and calling…. But we do not and will not attempt to force them upon others, or to control or dominate any of their affairs, individual or national [MFP 4:79, 82].

In 1968, the First Presidency issued a statement concerning the obligations of citizenship:

We urge our members to do their civic duty and to assume their responsibilities as individual citizens in seeking solutions to the problems which beset our cities and communities.

With our wide ranging mission, so far as mankind is concerned, Church members cannot ignore the many practical problems that require solution if our families are to live in an environment conducive to spirituality….

Individual Church members cannot, of course, represent or commit the Church, but should, nevertheless, be "anxiously engaged" in good causes, using the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as their constant guide [see Appendix, "Doctrinal Expositions of the First Presidency"].

There are differing views among Church members concerning how to put these principles into practice. From one view, government intervention ought to be minimal in order to encourage volunteerism, freedom of choice, and individual responsibility. Others believe governments should pursue a wide range of collective purposes and promote shared values. There are also differences concerning the role of religious ideas in political discourse. Some believe, much like those in other churches who have not hesitated to mix politics and religion in issues such as civil rights, abortion, and environmental pollution (see Earth), that religious principles having corresponding secular purposes should be part of public debate and be enacted into law if they can gain sufficient support in the political system. Others favor a more distinct separation between religious belief and public discourse, where public debate is limited to issues and values that can be defended on "rational" grounds, so that religious beliefs do not influence the making of laws (see Politics: Political Culture).

Brigham Young stated clearly the LDS commitment to a broad conception of collective effort in working toward a vision of a celestial community, while expressing ambivalence about earthly politics: "As for politics, we care nothing about them one way or the other, although we are a political people…. It is the Kingdom of God or nothing with us" (Millennial Star 31 [1869]:573).

Bibliography

Cannon, Donald Q. "Church and State." In Insights into the Doctrine and Covenants: The Capstone of our Religion, ed. R. Millet and L. Dahl, pp. 183-96. Salt Lake City, 1989.

Firmage, Edwin Brown. "Eternal Principles of Government: A Theological Approach." Ensign 6 (June 1976):11-16.

Nibley, Hugh. "Beyond Politics." In Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless: Classic Essays of Hugh W. Nibley, ed. T. Madsen, pp. 279-305. Provo, Utah, 1978.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 3, Political Teachings

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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